Will Safawi Rasid shine in absence of rival Nguyen Quang Hai?

From their age to their magical left feet and the impact they have for their teams, countless parallels can be drawn between Malaysia's Safawi Rasid and Vietnam's Nguyen Quang Hai. AP Photo/Minh Hoang

In Friday's penultimate set of games in the second round of joint-qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup, the clash between Vietnam and Malaysia looms as a standout fixture.

The two Southeast Asian nations have plenty of history between them and plenty at stake as they face off at the Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai.

What the regional rivals also have in common these days is the presence of two generational talents. With Vietnam's Nguyen Quang Hai ruled out Friday because of a suspension after picking up a yellow card against Garuda, will Safawi Rasid embrace centre stage and lead Harimau Malaya to a crucial win?

Both boast a wand of a left foot and the ability to unlock opposing defences. They both have an uncanny ability to ball through into the top corner and both have had an oversized influence recently on their sides.

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Born just 36 days apart, the two young stars are not only alike in playing style but also have been on similar career trajectories.

Already considered a huge star at home, a then-20-year-old Quang Hai first gained attention from the wider Asian football audience at the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship in China. The Hanoi FC attacker helped Vietnam upset the likes of Australia, Iraq and Qatar on the way to a first-ever continental final at any level.

It is clear that Quang Hai relishes having the ball at his feet, as he picks out teammates anywhere on the field at ease with a carefree swing of his left leg. His freekick goal against Uzbekistan during a snow-affected AFC U-23 final in Changzhou is testament to the potency of his left-footed set-pieces.

Meanwhile, Safawi broke onto the scene with Malaysian giants Johor Darul Ta'zim and has played a prominent role in the club's domestic success since 2018. His stunner against Shandong Luneng in the 2019 AFC Champions League, where he cut in from the right in and planted a shot the top corner in trademark fashion, perfectly illustrates what he brings to a team.

The Johor winger was on the scoresheet twice as Malaysia recorded a memorable 2-1 win against the Korea Republic at the 2018 Asian Games. He was also part of the Harimau Malaya side that finished runners-up in the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup. He is now one of the first names in Tan Cheng Hoe's national squad.

Expectedly, the two have attracted interest from foreign clubs.

Safawi ventured outside his country first during a short stint on loan at Portuguese top division side Portimonense last year but has since returned to JDT. Quang Hai has stayed put at Hanoi despite interest from K League 1 and J1 League clubs.

When the two 24-year-olds were pitted against each other lately, it has been the Vietnamese star who has come out on the top. In the 2018 AFF Cup final, Park Hang-seo and his Vietnam side defeated Malaysia 3-2 on aggregate to become the champions of Southeast Asia despite Safawi netting in the first leg.

In the ongoing World Cup qualifiers too, it was the Golden Star Warriors who edged Malaysia 1-0 at Hanoi's My Dinh Stadium in October 2019 courtesy of a goal from Quang Hai. That was one among the four wins that have propelled Vietnam to the summit of Group G with 14 points while Malaysia are fourth with nine points as the two sides meet again.

Despite a resounding 4-0 win against Indonesia on their return to World Cup qualifiers after a year-and-a-half break, Vietnam head into the crucial contest against Malaysia without Quang Hai -- their most lethal weapon as the attacker serves his suspension.

Park could also be sweating over the fitness of Nguyen Tuan Anh and Nguyen Van Toan, after the duo were forced to withdraw from their previous outing due to injuries.

Vietnam are yet to be assured of the top place in the group with only a two-point lead over United Arab Emirates, who they will face in their final second-round fixture. Safawi will have the perfect opportunity to deal a sucker punch to Vietnam as Malaysia see a chance to top a weakened rival.

Three points are a requisite for Malaysia if they want to keep their hopes of a third-round berth alive. Their 4-0 defeat to the Emiratis in the previous match day saw them drop from second at the restart to fourth place in the group level on nine points with third-placed Thailand.

It will be a meeting between familiar foes in Dubai on Friday with their qualification hopes in line. Vietnam will be handicapped by the absence of Quang Hai, but they have not suffered a defeat to Malaysia since 2014 and have time and again proved that their team is greater than the sum of its parts under South Korean manager Park.

For Malaysia, who have assembled one of their strongest squads of recent times for the second half of the competition, this could prove to be their best bet at making it to the third round of a World Cup qualifiers for the first time. All eyes will be on Safawi to help Harimau Malaya finally get one over on the Vietnamese at the international stage.